Why We Need Development Practitioners

It is important to note the persistence of a high level of poverty and underdevelopment in India, despite its achievements in the economic sphere and the income growth for a relatively smaller section of the society.


It is important to note the persistence of a high level of poverty and underdevelopment in India, despite its achievements in the economic sphere and the income growth for a relatively smaller section of the society. Around 25% of the population lives in absolute and abject poverty. Most of these people do not get even basic nutrition. Even the life of those who are above the poverty line is not very hopeful. In the year 2005, it was estimated that three-fourths of the Indian population has an average per-capita daily consumption expenditure of less than Rs 20 per day (NCEUS, 2007). These people lead vulnerable lives even if not in poverty. Only 5% of the Indian population can be considered a part of the global middle class (Brandi and Buge, 2014; Kharas, 2011). Despite the declining importance of agriculture in economic growth, more than half of the population finds their livelihood in farming and related activities and they encounter issues of vulnerability and distress quite often. The human development indicators of a number of major states in India are yet to reach the desirable levels. Infant mortality rates continue to be above 50 per 1000 in these states. About half of the children who are aged between 6 and 16 years are not in school. The country has already missed many important milestones of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) set by the United Nations, such as reducing the number of people who suffer from hunger and maternal mortality rate. Development practitioners try to address these issues of poverty and underdevelopment.

Reasons for poverty and underdevelopment

It is obvious that poverty prevails when the incomes of the people are not adequate to meet their basic consumption. The only asset of the majority of the poor is their ability to do unskilled work. So, they may end up in poverty if the earnings from such work are not adequate to meet their basic needs. This can happen if the number of jobs available and/​or wage rate for unskilled work is low. A similar situation is faced by farmers who have small land holdings. Their returns from agriculture and the income from wage labour may not be adequate to meet the basic requirements of their families. This situation is further aggravated if each working member has to support several non-working members, or dependents, such as the aged, in the household due to large family sizes. Families in which women are the only wage earners face difficulties during their periods of pregnancy and of nurturing their young children. Expenditure related issues, such as an emergency medical need can make some people poor. Firstly, they cannot work during that time and secondly, they may have to part with their assets, such as like land, to meet the unforeseen expenditure.

The persistence of poverty is a vicious circle. There is a possible link between population growth, the use of natural resources, and poverty or under-development. Poor people may need more hands to eke out a basic income, which may encourage them to have more children, which in turn, perpetuates poverty. In terms of nutrition, an undernourished person cannot earn enough for self and the family’s nutrition, which in turn may affect the family members’ ability to earn. Also, poor people spend all their time earning a living and may not be able to spare the time for the schooling of their children. The fact that many boys and girls from poor families may be working instead of studying and girls from such families may be staying at home to look after their younger siblings, may reduce the educational achievements of this next generation, reducing the possibility of their overcoming poverty in future.

Some sections of the society may remain underdeveloped if they cannot mobilize enough savings for capital investments and/​or cannot improve the productivity of their occupations (through skill-enhancement or education). Though land can be an important asset (many people in India do not have this asset), the most important asset today is education. Education helps a person earn better through employment in industries and services. It is important for reducing the number of children per woman, infant mortality and increasing life expectancy – for the overall human development.

However, the majority in India do not even complete schooling. There needs to be a greater emphasis on the provision of schooling for all and India has failed miserably in this regard during the first three to four decades after its independence. But since the 1990s, there has been visible progress in this regard. Among the manifold problems that come in the way of education is the problem of attitude and awareness – parents do not consider it necessary to send their children to school, hence, the issue is that of (lack of adequate) demand for education. This lower demand for education in some sections of Indian society could be due to two reasons, (a) poverty and lower incomes; (b) many parents do not see the need for educating all their children even when they have a basic income. For example, the willingness to educate girls in some parts of India has not gone up even among those parents whose income has increased1.

An important determinant of this demand is what people perceive as the benefits of education/​schooling. In a village where unskilled (agricultural or non-agricultural) work is the main occupation, many people may not see schooling or education as a valuable investment (Santhakumar et al, 2016). There could also be cultural factors which discourage parents from seeing the value of sending girls to schools. There are other such challenges in India which require a cultural or attitudinal change. An example is the prevalence of open defecation in certain parts of India, which has a negative impact on the health, nutritional intake, and the cognitive development of children. It is noted that this practice prevails not merely due to lower incomes or the lack of governmental investments in constructing toilets but because many people in the country do not believe that it as an undesirable practice. There may be a need for coercion, persuasion and incentives to encourage people to change their attitudes. Though governments have to play an important role in eradicating poverty and underdevelopment, non-governmental actors including development practitioners too can contribute significantly to the efforts. This is especially to supplement or complement the provisioning carried out by the state and also to create demand.

Caste as a cause for underdevelopment

The lower demand for education is manifested more among certain social (caste) groups in India. Poverty is also more acute among these groups as are the other development indicators including high rates of illiteracy, dropping out of school and infant mortality.

The reasons for their continued underdevelopment are also known. Historically, these groups of people were deprived of assets like land, capital and education. The fact that they were poor and underdeveloped for long durations may have also created vicious cycles perpetuating their status. Given that the advantages of education persist over generations, the lack of education among many people belonging to these groups has prolonged their disadvantages. In their current situation, many do not see the value of acquiring schooling, and they easily quit school to take up unskilled work. They also face the issues of social exclusion even with the legal and governmental efforts to minimize caste-based discrimination. Not allowing these people into certain public spaces including tea shops or temples, is not uncommon in parts of India. Though there is political representation for them in the local governments, their actual ability to exercise that power is muted in several contexts. These forms of social exclusion aggravate their economic underdevelopment.

The continuation of such underdevelopment among certain caste groups and their exclusion from mainstream processes despite attempts to avoid such a situation through constitutional safeguards and other measures indicate that governmental efforts alone are inadequate. This is another space for non-governmental actors and development practitioners can assume an important role in this.

Gender Discrimination

Women lag behind men in India in terms of literacy and school enrolment, especially in the higher grades. However, the most crucial indicator of gender discrimination in the country is its skewed sex ratio, which is as low as 900 women for 1000 men in some states. It is common knowledge that medical technology is used for sex-selection and to prevent the birth of girls.

Gender discrimination starts in homes and can take the extreme form wherein girls may not get enough food. Not sending girls to schools or for higher education, or discrimination in the nature of higher education for girls prevails not only among the poorer sections but also among the middle classes. The conventional marriage and inheritance traditions which do not grant property rights to the daughters in the family affect their bargaining power within the marriage, forcing them to suffer domestic harassment and violence. Yet another manifestation of gender discrimination is the practice of dowry and the harassments related to it. The legal prohibition on dowry has not been effective and dowry deaths and killings are still prevalent. The increasing incidents of sexual violence, including rape and murder, and of sexual harassment in public- and workplaces are not uncommon. These negatively affect the rights of women and require mitigation strategies. Gender discrimination is also a major source of underdevelopment in India. See the discussion in the box below.

Marriage – a barrier against human development for the poorer sections
of the Indian society

It is obvious that certain practices such as early marriage and reluctance to send girls to school are harmful to human development. There is evidence to indicate that such practices are not merely due to poverty or these may not disappear when people come out of poverty in terms of their levels of income.2 The practice of marrying girls at a younger age and the differential treatment meted out to them in terms of education persist even among the better-off households in India. Some parents are unwilling to send their daughters to school because they do not see any benefit of it to them as the girl when she marries, goes off to live with her husband’s family. As regards the benefit of education to the girl herself, the awareness is very poor too. Early marriage prevents girls from enrolling in secondary education in many parts of India (Santhakumar et al, 2016). The reluctance to educate girls is costly not only to them but to the society too. Education of girls could be helpful in breaking the cycle of poverty and underdevelopment of the current and the future generations. Educated girls are likely to delay the age of marriage3; they are more likely to be able to assert their reproductive rights and have fewer children. For example, it has been noted that an extra year of schooling for girls reduces fertility rates by 5 – 10%. A reduction in the number of children per woman, if it happens, may lead to a reduction in the infant mortality rate. In addition, literate/​schooled women would be more knowledgeable (or willing to acquire knowledge) on the hygienic and other practices that may reduce infant mortality and morbidity. It is estimated that an additional year of schooling for a mother, on an average, results in a reduction in infant mortality by 9 per 1,000 (World Bank 1993). The possibility of having fewer and healthier children of an educated mother may lead to the better education of the former. A number of studies have noted the positive contribution of mothers’ education on the schooling of their children (Santhakumar et al, 2016). This is more so for the education of the girl child (Kambhapati and Pal 2001; Bhalla, Saigal, and Basu 2003). Girls’ education is an important tool to take generations out of poverty and the focus on marriage that leads to a lower willingness to educate girls among poorer families is a major barrier against the achievement of higher levels of human development among the underdeveloped sections of the society.

In fact, primary schooling is not adequate to achieve the social benefits of girls’ education and secondary schooling is important for the desired changes in fertility, infant mortality and participation in paid employment. It is noted in Subbarao and Rainey (1995),4 based on a study in a number of countries that a woman on an average, is likely to have more than five children if she does not have secondary education and is also more likely to have experienced the loss of a child or two in their infancy. On the other hand, the situation is very different in those countries where half the girls were educated up to the secondary level. There, according to the study, the fertility rate is about three children per women and infant deaths are also rare. For achieving other desirable outcomes like the use of child delivery services and the knowledge of measures to avoid HIV infection, secondary education is important (Malhotra, Pande, and Grown 2003). Higher levels of education of the mothers is an important enabling factor for the education of the children, especially girls. 

Absence or lower levels of education have an impact on violence against women, in general. Analysis based on Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data from Cambodia, Colombia, India, and Nicaragua shows that women with lower levels of education are more likely to report to have experienced violence (Kishor and Johnson 2004). The highest rates of violence were found among women with only primary education in the Dominican Republic, Egypt, Peru, and Zambia, while the lowest rates were among women with secondary or higher education (Ibid). Limited education also limits women’s control over their bodies. Marriage at a young age is a major barrier against secondary school education for girls.

Women were also deprived of economic assets (ownership of land and education) in India and that is one reason for the continuation of their lower development indicators. Their financial and social security is sought within the marital family. The absence of education and gainful employment and the dependence on marital family for social security have led to a gender division of work and norms which determine what women should (or should not) do.

Even if the social and economic conditions have changed for some sections of the society (say, the middle-class), the impact of gender discrimination may still persist among them. These may reflect in women not having control over their own earnings, the double burden of doing housework along with paid employment and so on. Whether it is for ensuring the rights of women, or for addressing the issues of general underdevelopment in India, addressing gender discrimination is crucial. Cultural practices like this cannot be mitigated by governmental agencies alone. Non-governmental organizations and concerned individuals may have to be active in this regard.

There can be unintended consequences of development actions due to the prevailing gender norms. People have realized that if poverty eradication programs are aimed at women, they may benefit families (and children) in many ways. However, in such programs, the burden to take care of family or children’s requirements may fall unequally on women and there could be a double burden if there is no change in the intra-household division of labour shaped by the prevailing gender norms. Similarly, poverty eradication measures investing more responsibility (and money) in the hands of women may lead their husbands to shirk responsibilities. Hence, such schemes may lead to undesirable consequences if other issues related to gender discrimination are not addressed. Conscious efforts can be made in normal development interventions to challenge the prevailing gender norms in society. For example, societies may have norms regarding jobs that can be taken up by girls, and these may perpetuate gender stereotypes. Skill development programs aimed at both boys and girls can encourage girls to acquire skills which are traditionally considered the monopoly of men, like plumbing or carpentry. Girls must be encouraged to take up employment as the main source of their financial and social security (and not marriage). The ownership of land and house may enhance their ability to resist harassment and violence in marriage.

The Need for development practice in any context

Though poverty and underdevelopment are serious issues in India (even at a time when the country is undergoing higher economic growth), these are important in other developing and developed countries too. There are sections of people in the United States of America (primarily, black and indigenous Americans, and sections of Spanish-speaking people) who face problems of relative poverty, unemployment, under-education, and other issues. They may require the attention of governmental and non-governmental actors. Issues like drug addiction and alcoholism can be more prevalent among certain groups. A state-centered approach (legal ban or punishments) may not be adequate in these cases. There may be a need for persuasive strategies to bring these people out of such problems. Altruistic organisations and individuals may be able to make a significant impact in such situations.

Certain actions are useful not only for the recipients but to the society as a whole. Education, including higher education, is an example. If some people cannot acquire education since they do not have the means, it is costly not only to them but also to the society. Hence, the need for the society to provide support to such activities, like education. This is more so in the case where the gap between private return and public return is higher. For example, a student who needs a loan for engineering or management education gets it easily because of his/​her propensity to pay back, while this may not be so easy for a student who wants to study development. Hence, there is a need in all countries for governmental or altruistic support for education. This is the reason for the provision of higher education by the state or altruistic agencies (directly or through fellowships) in the developed countries. In fact, such support is more widespread in developed societies, and we are yet to see adequate social support for quality education in developing countries like India.

In any society, individuals’ isolated actions may not lead to the most appropriate outcomes. There is a need for collective action whether it is for bringing electricity line or constructing a road to a village, or the cleaning of public spaces in urban residential localities. However, in these collective actions too, some individuals driven by the narrow self-interest may take a free-ride on others by not acting themselves and gaining from the benefits from others’ actions. If the public interest litigation filed by one person reduces pollution in an area, it benefits everybody. Hence, there could be a tendency among people to wait for the others to (bear the cost and) act. Such an attitude can be costly for everybody since they will continue in an inferior equilibrium, getting out of which may require someone to take the interest beyond their own narrow self-interest. Like, the person who files a public interest litigation, in most cases, is concerned about the impact of pollution not only on him/​her but on others too and is willing to act without waiting for others to act or offer their support. Such a person is a development practitioner. This is similar to a person who takes on a leadership role (by spending considerable time convincing others) in facilitating collective action to keep public spaces clean. Such willingness to do good is important in enhancing welfare. Human welfare does not depend solely on market exchange of goods and services but also on collective action in the case of public goods. Altruistic behaviour by some individuals may be needed to trigger and sustain collective action. On the other hand, if everyone is looking after his/​her own narrow self-interest, such a collective action may not come about or it may not last.

Going beyond one’s own self-interest may be useful for the society in a number of ways. Exchange of goods and services is riddled with the problem of information asymmetry. The buyer may not be able to know the actual quality of the item transacted and the seller may not be in a position to communicate credibly the real quality of the product. Why should a buyer believe a seller of a used car when he/​she says that it is in a good working condition? We know that under normal circumstances, he does not have the incentive to say otherwise. This information issue is much more acute in the case of medical care or legal advice since the patient/​client is not aware of the quality of service that is to be bought’. The problems that arise when doctors become narrowly self-interested or when hospitals focus only on profits are well known. Caesarean operations may be performed even when normal child delivery is possible and desirable, or unnecessary drugs may be prescribed. Addressing these problems of information asymmetry can also be an intervention by development practitioners.

Many students who get education or skills not necessarily from reputed institutes may find it difficult to get jobs even if they are proficient in their work. This is because of the situation where potential employers are not in a position to judge their real capabilities. There can be useful social interventions in this regard. It may include reliable skill certification programs, provision of short-period employment provided by concerned employers and so on. Also, the willingness to make effort (or risk) to identify potentially proficient employees from such a group could be part of the development practice.

There are millions of small producers (who are involved in agricultural or artisanal occupations) and earn poorly since they may not be able to address the issues related to marketing in an effective manner. Marketing has a scale economy, therefore; large-scale sellers have more advantages. Hence, it would be useful, if small producers can be brought together by the state or non-state actors, and a producers’ collective carries out the marketing and helps in modifying the nature of the product to meet the requirements of a wider set of consumers. Such a collective can also address some issues related to information asymmetry. It could lead to the creation of successful brands, something that cannot be attempted by small producers. For brands to be popular, they need centralized quality control but standardization of many decentralized, small producers is difficult. A wonderful example of this is the brand, Amul. There can be interventions of this nature by those who want to help small producers (who form a major part of poorer and vulnerable population) in most countries, especially the developing ones.

Creating for-profit enterprises can also be part of the development practice in certain contexts where there is a need for the introduction of a new commodity or service, which is useful for the society. There may be a need for sacrificing profits in the short-run to popularize a product. Cheap sanitary napkins could be one such example in the Indian context. This is a useful product, yet to be used by the majority of women in India, and which can improve the quality of their lives. Innovation leading to the provision of cheaper products for a wider section of society and market development are necessary for many items and services of this nature

Enabling development by correcting governments

If we analyse the experience in different societies historically, a major role of development practitioners has been to resist the anti-people policies of the government and to make them more accountable, democratic and suitable for enhancing the overall welfare of the society. Broadly, one can see two kinds of people involved in this. One, those affected by the policies of the government. The direct (self) interest of such people encourages them to resist governmental action. However, one can also see many people from other sections of the society carrying out or leading such political action on behalf of those who are affected directly. There is an argument that in a situation where governments are captured by the elites, the non-elites (say poor) which are excluded from or affected by governance may not be in a position to mobilize themselves against the policies of the government, and may require the support or leadership from sections of elites or the middle-class. However, most of them are part of some political action or mobilization and we are not including them in this note.

There can be other aspects of governance which can be corrected through the initiatives of development practitioners (even if they do not want to be political actors). Generally, there are two kinds of failures on the part of the government – it may not act in all situations where it should and it may act in situations where it need not. Most of these harmful omissions and commissions could be driven by the narrow interests of groups in the society. (For example, industrialists may lobby for policies which give them monopoly power.) There is a role for people who are concerned about the overall social welfare to suggest alternatives that can reduce the social cost of these omissions and commissions by the government. However, there is the issue of information asymmetry here. If these interventions are merely policy prescriptions, these cannot be differentiated from those which come from interest groups. This is so since people at large cannot evaluate the merits of policy prescriptions. On the other hand, there can be policy experiments and pilot interventions carried out by development practitioners (the effort and money they spend could indicate their social concern in this regard). For example, there can be innovations (for example, through the use of information technology) which attempt to improve the quality of governance. Policy prescriptions emanating from successful ones among these experiments may get wider social acceptance. Hence, policy-making can also be a space for development practice, if it is backed by credible efforts to incorporate wider social interests.

In situations where development actions alone may not be adequate or acceptable or even desirable; or where there is a need for social and political changes within the society, practitioners need to step back. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there is no scarcity of issues in countries like India requiring attention, and not intervening in one issue will not deprive them of other opportunities! Rational thinking would mean a proper balance between acting where it is possible and appropriate and leaving it to the larger socio-political forces’ when that is the best course of action. Although in the latter case too there is scope for appropriate intervention, which is to facilitate political action and the deepening of the democracy.


  1. The details can be seen in Santhakumar et al (2016).

  2. For a recent review, see Santhakumar et al (2016)

  3. Women with seven or more years of schooling marry five years later than women with no education in Africa (World Bank 1993).

  4. This is a cross-country study of fertility and secondary school attainment among women in sixty-five low- and middle-income countries, which cover 93% of the population of the developing world.


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V Santhakumar, Professor, Azim Premji University.